- Sleepless in Seattle (1993) movie review: Notwithstanding the presence of likable performers Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, Nora Ephron’s romantic comedy is an unromantic, unfunny homage to Leo McCarey’s 1957 classic An Affair to Remember.
- Sleepless in Seattle was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Song (“A Wink and a Smile,” by Marc Shaiman & Ramsay McLean).
Sleepless in Seattle movie review: Meg Ryan & Tom Hanks suffer through an affair to forget
In Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Red, the last installment in his “Three Colors” trilogy, the word “magic” is never bandied about. No need to. Magic is just about everywhere in that lyrical tale about love, longing, and fate. At the other extreme, the word “magic” seems to crop up every other minute in director/co-screenwriter Nora Ephron’s 1993 romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle.
Ephron and fellow Oscar-nominated screenwriters Jeff Arch and David S. Ward (in addition to an uncredited Delia Ephron) were apparently trying to create screen magic through the power of suggestion. If you repeat it often enough…
Following in the footsteps of Claude Lelouch’s 1974 hit And Now My Love, and with pivotal touches borrowed from Leo McCarey’s 1957 romance classic An Affair to Remember (itself a remake of McCarey’s own 1939 Love Affair), Sleepless in Seattle is a tale of romantic yearning and fateful encounters – but one in which human feelings and emotions are replaced by audience-friendly mawkishness and near-lethal doses of saccharine.
No wonder Sleepless in Seattle became a box office smash upon its release.
From Heartburn to syrup overdose
Nora Ephron has written numerous hard-hitting essays; a good screenplay about a strong-willed woman, Silkwood; and a damning indictment of former husband and All the President’s Men coauthor Carl Bernstein, Heartburn, a novel later turned into a Mike Nichols movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.
But apparently hidden under Ephron’s tough-as-nails surface lay a sentimentalist screaming to get out. In addition to Sleepless in Seattle, there have also been When Harry Met Sally… and You’ve Got Mail; not coincidentally, all three starring Meg Ryan.
Sleepless in Seattle begins as recently widowed architect Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks) moves with his 8-year-old son Jonah (Ross Malinger) from Chicago to Seattle so as to forget his late wife. Worried about his listless father, Jonah contacts a call-in radio program. Egged on by the boy, Sam (code name: “Sleepless in Seattle”) ends up discussing his feelings of loss and loneliness on national radio.
On the other side of the United States, Baltimore denizen Annie Reed (Meg Ryan) is on her way to meet her fiancé, Walter (Bill Pullman), when she accidentally tunes into that station. Annie – along with thousands of other women across the U.S. – fall in love with Sam’s voice and his longing for “magic.”
A few days later, her best friend, Becky (Rosie O’Donnell), mails a letter Annie had written to Sam. After reading it, Jonah decides that Annie will be his next Mom.
‘The closest place to heaven on Earth’ not close enough
As an homage to An Affair to Remember, Nora Ephron and her fellow co-writers have our hero and heroine brought together by fate – here in the form of your usual movie brat – at the top of the Empire State Building.
Of course, the promised meeting between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr never takes place in the 1957 drama. A car interferes with Kerr’s dash to “the closest place to heaven on Earth” – even though that would actually have been the top of Mt. Everest.
Topographical details aside, when Sleepless in Seattle finally reaches its romantic climax, this viewer was praying for a meteor hit that would send Annie directly to heaven itself. But realistically speaking, no one in their right mind could believe from the get-go that anything would prevent Baltimore’s Annie from having a tête à tête with Seattle’s Sleepless.
Tom Hanks & Meg Ryan can’t rescue sappy romance
What saves Sleepless in Seattle from total disaster is the sheer likability of its two leads.
Neither Tom Hanks nor Meg Ryan brings much depth to their characterizations – Ryan, in particular, suffers because Annie is such an underwritten role (“a Republican who had never had an orgasm” was Ephron’s description of Ryan’s character motivation) – but both of them are personable, eminently watchable actors.
Tom Hanks, who had been worried during production that his “sensitive,” grieving widower would come across as an insufferable wimp, has the advantage of getting (or creating, since the actor also ad-libbed) some of the best sardonic lines in the film.
On the downside, the supporting players, generally a welcome relief from the maudlinness of most movie romances, do not offer much help in this one.
As the Other Man, Bill Pullman overdoes his character’s allergy crises, while future talk-show hostess Rosie O’Donnell is no more than adequate as a drier, more staid Una Merkel type. Having said that, O’Donnell must be given credit for the best line delivery in the film: “I love that dream,” Becky matter-of-factly tells Annie, in reference to dreams in which the dreamer finds herself walking naked in public places.
And let’s not forget Sven Nykvist’s cinematography, ever classy, whether he’s working in Sweden (e.g., Ingmar Bergman’s Cries & Whispers and Fanny and Alexander) or elsewhere (e.g., Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors).
Men are from Seattle, Women are from Baltimore
Watching Sleepless in Seattle, we learn that men and women have different sensibilities: Women cry while watching An Affair to Remember; men don’t cry, period.
We also learn that an inarticulate, faux-emotional chat on a call-in radio program may lead to unexpected romance with a cute blonde from Baltimore.
And that a person can experience magical, ever-lasting romantic love more than once in a lifetime.
So, when Sam and Annie go meet their maker at the top of heaven’s equivalent to the Empire State Building, one should expect them to be joined by Sam’s first wife for a life of eternal three-way bliss.
Now, that would definitely be a movie romance worth checking out.
Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
Director: Nora Ephron.
Screenplay: Nora Ephron, David S. Ward, and Jeff Arch. (Uncredited contributor: Delia Ephron.)
From a screen story by Jeff Arch.
Cast: Tom Hanks. Meg Ryan. Bill Pullman. Ross Malinger. Rosie O’Donnell. Gaby Hoffman. Victor Garber. Rita Wilson. David Hyde Pierce. Rob Reiner. Frances Conroy. Tom McGowan. Dana Ivey.
Voice: Caroline Aaron.
“Sleepless in Seattle Movie (1993) Review” notes
 Like Three Colors: Red, And Now My Love / Toute une vie features would-be lovers (Marthe Keller and André Dussollier) about to meet each other as the film comes to a close.
Love Affair stars Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. A third remake – with the same title – was directed by Glenn Gordon Caron, starred Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, and featured Katharine Hepburn in her final big-screen appearance.
Released the year after Sleepless in Seattle, Love Affair was a box office bomb.
Box office hit
 Sleepless in Seattle was the fourth biggest domestic grosser in 1993 (calendar year), trailing Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur thriller Jurassic Park, Andrew Davis’ Harrison Ford thriller The Fugitive, and Sydney Pollack’s Tom Cruise thriller The Firm.
Nora Ephron-Meg Ryan collaborations
Co-written by Nora and Delia Ephron, the surprisingly entertaining You’ve Got Mail (1998) – the latest film adaptation of Miklós László’s Parfumarie (following The Shop Around the Corner, 1940; and In the Good Old Summertime, 1949) – had Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks once again exchanging longing looks.
“Sleepless in Seattle (1993)” endnotes
Tom Hanks feeling uncomfortable about his character’s potential saccharinity and his ad-libbing are discussed in Nora Ephron and sister Delia Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle DVD commentary.
Ross Malinger, Tom Hanks, and Meg Ryan Sleepless in Seattle images: TriStar Pictures.
“Sleepless in Seattle (1993): Romantic Comedy Lacks Romance & Humor” last updated in September 2021.